CHARLES RUNNELLS, CRUNNELLS@NEWS-PRESS.COM 6:03 a.m. EST January 28, 2016
Florida Repertory Theatre announced a major donation today, and it’s already putting that $1 million to good use. The Fort Myers theater company started building a new rehearsal space this fall and also plans to open a second summer camp for kids.
Despite the announcement, the theater company actually started getting the money six months ago, said founder and producing artistic director Bob Cacioppo. Two Fort Myers couples have pledged to give the theater $100,000 each for the next five years.
Cacioppo debated for months whether he wanted to announce the news to the public. He worried that, among other things, the news would affect people’s willingness to donate more. Florida Rep is still actively fundraising, he said, and needs money for various other projects.
“We’re a charity,” Cacioppo said. “It’s not like you’re going to see me driving around in a Lexus now. It doesn’t work that way.”
In the end, he and the four donors decided that announcing the pledges would do more good than harm.
“We hope to encourage others,” said retired investment manager Hugh Denison, 69, of Fort Myers. “This theater could go from being outstanding to being just over-the-top great and a community asset that can be enjoyed by everybody.”
The money helps ensure that Florida Rep sticks around for the long haul, Cacioppo said. “All this is about Florida Rep being here 50 years from now.”
The $1 million pledge comes from two couples who have helped support Florida Rep for years: Denison and his wife Mary of Fort Myers and their friends Bruce and Janet Bunch of North Fort Myers.
“We’re just basically theater lovers,” said Bruce Bunch, 69, a retired communications executive for General Electric. “We attend a lot of theater in Southwest Florida, but we were really taken with the professionalism of The Rep.”
Florida Rep attracts more than 85,000 theater goers every year, according to a theater press release. Last year, its education and outreach programming reached 22,000 people — up from 11,000 the year before.
Cacioppo called the donations “a transformational gift” and said they come at a good time for Florida Rep. The theater is debt-free as of last year, so the money can go directly to improving the theater’s plays, investing in its stability and offering more programs for children.
The money lays the foundation for future growth, too, including Cacioppo’s dreams to start an endowment and also a yearly production of a world classic such as “Romeo and Juliet” or “To Kill a Mockingbird.” For each classic play, half of the tickets would be given away to Lee County’s high schools.The $1 million is being donated through Florida Rep’s Heirloom Society, a new group of donors pledging to help sustain the theater for the long-term through various methods. The Denisons and The Bunches are the society’s founding members.
“It’s been on my dry-erase board for five years, to create the World Classic Initiative,” Cacioppo said. “Imagine how that would affect an entire generation of students in Southwest Florida!”
The most immediate effect of the donation, however, will be a new rehearsal space in downtown Fort Myers. About $350,000 of the donated money has gone toward buying and renovating a second-floor space at 2401 First St., downtown Fort Myers.
Florida Rep bought the 5,000-square-foot space this fall and is converting it into a 1,000-square-foot rehearsal space and a 500-square-foot classroom. The classroom will will also be used as a rehearsal room for Florida Rep’s smaller ArtStage Studio Theatre productions. The space will also be used for Florida Rep’s various education and outreach programs, including a new second summer camp for kids.
The project is expected to be done in about a month. A second phase of the renovation will include office space for the theater’s administrative staff. Florida Rep plans to do more fundraising for that phase.
Cacioppo says Florida Rep has been renting rehearsal spaces for 18 years now, so it will be refreshing to have a permanent room. Past rehearsal spaces have been too small and didn’t match the size and footprint of Florida Rep’s main stage. And that affected the quality of the shows.
“I do think this will help us do better work,” Cacioppo said.
Bunch said he’s excited to know that his money will have an impact that he’ll be able to see in the next year or two.
Hugh Denison said they felt it was important to support a Fort Myers institution that they’ve loved for years, and perhaps help other people enjoy it, too.
“We thought it was important,” he said. “We’re just delighted to play a small role in making the community better.”
To donate or learn more about Florida Rep, call 332-4665 or visit FloridaRep.org.